National Endowment for the Arts
V.'wt Museum, library
20 GREAT MEXICAN SHORT STORIES
FOR THE ARTS
20 GREAT MEXICAN SHORT STORIES
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nations largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nations 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain
heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based in
Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state region
of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota,
and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United States, Arts
Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Gioia, Dana and R. S. Gwynn, eds. The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction: Stories and Authors
in Context. New York: Longman, 2001. Used with permission of Dana Gioia.
Hernandez, Jorge F. ed. Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories. Mexico:
Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2008.
Thiel, Diane. "Octavio Paz: My Life with the Wave" in An Introduction to Fiction. Gioia, Dana, and
X. J. Kennedy, eds. New York: Longman, 1999.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writers: David Kipen, Erika Koss, Dan Brady, and Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National
Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/ Washington DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover courtesy of Fondo de Cultura
Economica; courtesy of Mark Segal/Getty Images. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius.
Inside back cover: Courtesy of Robert Yager/Cetty Images.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Reading Short Fiction 4
Lesson Two: "Cooking Lesson" by Rosario Castellanos
Focus: Realism 5
Lesson Three: "Cooking Lesson" by Rosario Castellanos
Focus: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" by Juan Rulro
Focus: Character Development 7
Lesson Five: "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" by Juan Riilfb
Focus: Plot 8
Lesson Six: "My Life with the Wave" by Octavio Pa/
Focus: Surrealism 9
Lesson Seven: "Mv Life with the Wave" bv ( Vt.ivio Pa/
Focus: Metaphor 10
1 esson Fight: "Chac-Mool by Carlos Fuentes
Focus: Epistolary Writing 1 1
Lesson Nine: "Chac-Mool" by ( arlos Fuentes
Focus: Symbolism \1
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Short Story ( treat? 13
Essay Topics 1 \
( apstone Projects 15
Handout One: Short Fiction Id
1 landoui [wo: Reader-Response ( miasm 17
1 landoui Three: Octavio Pa A "My 1 ire with theWavi
\n Allegory d the ( reative Process, by Diane Thid 18
leaching Resources 1 4)
'Scribbled in green ink on yellowing
sheets or set down by the nervous
clacking that typewriters used to
make, these are stories meant to be
read as if you were leisurely drawing
out an after-dinner conversation,
or narrating mile after mile of a
voyage while lost in a purple dusk,
or remembering pieces of your
life under the spell of the hypnotic
insomnia with which subway cars
move in Mexico City."
—JORGE F. HERNANDEZ
from the introduction to Sun, Stone, and Shadows
Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
the anthology of Mexican short fiction, Sun, Stone, and Shadows. Each
lesson has four sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing
exercises, and homework assignments. In addition, we have provided
capstone projects and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with
more background information about the stories, Mexican culture and
history, and the authors' biographies. All lessons dovetail with the state
language arts standards required in the fiction genre.
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, The Big Read CD presents
the readings of the stories and first-hand accounts of why Mexican short
fiction is a compelling way to explore the country's culture and heritage.
Many celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time
to make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, book lists, timelines, and historical information. We hope
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of the great Mexican authors included in
From the NEA. we wish you an exciting and productive school year
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for ik the big read • |
FOCUS: Reading Short Fiction
Activities: Read Handouts One and Two, and
the Introduction from the Reader's Guide.
Write a short essay considering the appeal of
a favorite story.
Homework: Read Castellanos's biography
from the Reader's Guide (p. 8) and "Cooking
by Rosario Castellanos
Activities: Discuss ways Castellanos uses
language that appeals to the senses.
Homework: Describe the story's narrator.
by Rosario Castellanos
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Discuss the narrator and how the
story might change if told from third person.
Homework: Read 'Tell Them Not to Kill Me!"
by Juan Rulfo. List the story's main characters
and write a one-sentence description of each.
"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!"
by Juan Rulfo
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: List the main characters of the story.
Conduct a mock trial of Juvencio. Write a
description of what happens to the characters
after the story ends.
Homework: Re-read the story and identify its
major turning points.
"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!"
by Juan Rulfo
Activities: Discuss the story's pacing and
construct a timeline. Write a short essay
considering the ways flashbacks and plot
twists change the way the reader feels about
the story's characters.
Homework: Read "My Life with the Wave"
by Octavio Paz. Identify moments when the
story seems bizarre and others where it
seems more conventional.
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"My Life with the Wave"
by Octavio Paz
Activities: Discuss surrealism. Identify specific
instances where the story might be considered
surrealistic, traditional, or romantic. Write
about how Paz's quote on modernity might
provide interpretive clues to the story.
Homework: Re-read the story and read
Handout Three. Write two paragraphs about
Diane Thiel's interpretation of the story.
"My Life with the Wave"
by Octavio Paz
Activities: Discuss imagery and personification.
Debate Thiel's analysis of the story. Write an
essay considering the impact of understanding
both the literal and the figurative qualities of
Homework: Read "Chac-Mool" by Carlos
Fuentes. Pay close attention to the structure
of the story.
"Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes
FOCUS: Epistolary Writing
Activities: Discuss the story's structure and
how the form lends itself to horror and
suspense. Write a short story using the
Homework: Find examples of symbolism in
"Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes
Activities: Discuss the symbolic value of the
stone figure. Write an essay on the symbolic
value of water.
Homework: Have students begin writing
essays. Outlines are due at the next class.
FOCUS: What Makes a Short Story Great }
Activities: Explore the qualities of a great short
story. Review essay outlines and drafts.
Homework: Essays are due next class period.
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Literature has a lot to offer the reader. As art made verbal, the act of reading
improves vocabulary and makes readers aware of the power of language,
enhancing the ability to express ourselves. Short fiction traces its roots to
the ancient tradition of oral storytelling when tales were passed down from
one generation to another. Short stories are more focused than novels,
making them ideal for reading in a single sitting. Because of its brevity,
short fiction offers teachers unique opportunities to explore various aspects
of literature (plot, character development, point of view, and setting) within
a manageable time.
Read Teacher's Guide Handout One: Short Fiction. Ask your students to name
some of their favorite fables, fairy tales, parables, or tall tales. What aspects of
these stories appeal to them? Do they remember whether they first heard the
story read (or told) aloud, or if they read it themselves? Is reading a story a
significantly different experience from listening to it read aloud? Which do your
students prefer and why?
Read the Introduction to Sun, Stone, and Shadows from the Reader's Guide
(p. 3) and Handout Two: Reader- Response Criticism. Use the essay and
handout to talk about the ways reading Mexican literature can expand a reader's
understanding of Mexican culture and history. Generate a discussion about the
ways plot, action, or a particular character within a story can be interpreted
in different ways by different people. Ask your students to keep a separate
notebook that will serve as a reader-response journal. They will use this journal
for their homework, to track their responses to stories, to note questions, and
to list vocabulary words.
Ask students to write three paragraphs in their reader's journal considering a
favorite fable, fairy tale, parable, or tall tale. What was the plot of the story?
Did it have a moral lesson, or was the story simply entertaining? Ask students
to consider why the story appealed to them at the age they first heard it, and
whether or not it has the same emotional effect on them now.
Ask students to read the short biography of Rosario Castellanos from the
Reader's Guide (p. 8) and "Cooking Lesson." Ask students to write a short essay
in their journals comparing the woman and her kitchen to a person in their own
life who may or may not like to cook.
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"Cooking Lesson" by Rosario Castellanos
Realism is an attempt to reproduce faithfully the lives of ordinary people in
everyday situations. Characters, settings, and events are presented in ways
the reader should recognize as plausible. Realism often relies on appealing to
the reader's senses because the success of realistic fiction relies on an authors
ability to structure plots that ring true from emotional, psychological, and
Food and its preparation are an especially important part of Mexican
culture. In "Cooking Lesson" by Rosario Castellanos, a newly married
woman attempts to cook a roast for the first time. The kitchen, the
meat, and the aromas are described in great detail and echo the narrators
emotional condition. It becomes clear that the sterility of the kitchen and
the narrators culinary failure symbolize her troubled marriage and her
resistance to assuming a traditional role in her new household.
Ask several students to read their homework aloud in class. Are the essays
similar? If not, discuss students' various reactions to the story as a class,
remembering that reader-response criticism allows for different interpretations
of the same story as long as the reader's opinions remain grounded in the text.
How much does personal experience affect the way students identify with this
story? Is the same true for all works of literature?
Ask students to name several examples of images, thoughts, actions, or emotions
in the story that are both realistic and believable. As a class, discuss how each
element contributes to the success of the story.
Setting is the time and place in which the action of a story occurs. Often, setting
is more than just background information. A particular setting can cause things to
happen. Characters placed in a specific setting might behave in certain ways, have
profound realizations, and reveal their innermost natures. Discuss the importance
of setting in this story.
%A Writing Exercise
Rosario Castellanos appeals to each of her reader's senses to create realistic
fiction. Ask students to write a short essay identifying ways Castellanos has
appealed to all of the reader's senses while writing "Cooking Lesson."
In their reader's journals, have students write a short description of the story's
narrator, including a paragraph on each of the following questions. Who is the
narrator? How does she feel about her marriage and the traditional roles of
women in Mexican society' What parallels does the narrator see between herself
and the ruined meat'
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THE BIG READ * 5
and Point of
Cooking Lesson" by Rosario Castellanos
The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters,
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person
narrator participates in the events of the story, using "I." A distanced
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story
and uses the third person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited,
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told.
"Cooking Lesson" is narrated from the first-person point of view by a newly
married woman struggling to cook a meal for her husband. She tells us, "I
stand here like an imbecile, in an impeccable and neutral kitchen, wearing
the apron that I usurp in order to give a pretense of efficiency and of which
I will be shamefully but justly stripped." As she prepares the meal, she
reflects on her troubled marriage.
Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise
Using the homework assignment from the last class, ask students to discuss the
role of the narrator in the story. Why might Castellanos have chosen to tell the
story from the young woman's perspective rather than through a third-person
objective narrator? How would a change in point of view have changed the
Ask students to write a response to the quotation below in their reader's
journals addressing the following questions: Why is the narrator rebelling against
her role as a wife? How might her duties differ from those of her mother's
generation? How does she believe her husband will react if she refuses to
perform these tasks, or if she fails to do them well? Why might that breed
All the responsibilities and duties of a servant are assigned to me for everything.
I'm supposed to keep the house impeccable, the clothes ready, mealtimes exact
On the other hand, I'm supposed to contribute to the support of the household
... In my free time I transform myself into a society matron who gives luncheons
and dinners for her husband's friends, attends meetings, subscribes to the opera
season, watches her weight, renews her wardrobe, cares for her skin, keeps
Read "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" by Juan Rulfo. Make a list of the story's main
characters and write a one-sentence description of each.
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"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" by Juan Rulfo
The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist.
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The
protagonist's journey is enriched by encounters with characters that hold
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast
with the protagonist's and highlight important features of the main
characters personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes the
protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success.
The protagonist of Juan Rulfo's "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" is Juvencio
Nava, a man who has lived in hiding for thirty-five wars after killing a
neighbor, Don Lupe Terreros. Juvencio is pursued by Hon 1 upe's son. now
a colonel, who has finally caught up with his father's killer. Juvencio s own
son, Justino, has acted as a liaison between the colonel and Juvencio, despite
concerns for his safety and that of his wife and eight children.
List the main characters on the board in front of your class. Using the homework
assignment, discuss each character's role in the story. Assign a student to play
each part. Ask the rest of the class to split into two teams. Assign one team to
be Juvencio's defense attorneys and the other team to act as the prosecution.
Each team may call the characters to serve as witnesses for either the defense
or prosecution. Argue Juvencio's guilt or innocence, then debate his sentence.
Does Juvencio warrant sympathy? What was his motive for killing Don Lupe' Is
Colonel Terreros justified in his revenge? Does Juvencio deserve his punishment'
Could anyone in this story be considered a hero?
Jj Writing Exercise
In their reader's journals ask students to write about what happens after the last
scene in "Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" Does this blood feud end with Juvencio.
or does it set off a cycle of revenge? Is Colonel Terreros satisfied with the death
of the man who murdered his father' What role did Justino play in his father's
capture, and how does he cope with this experience?
Have students re-read the story, this time identifying mapr turning points in the
plot and shifts in time.
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"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" by Juan Rulfo
The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense,
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented.
Rulfo's story grips the reader from the very first sentence — 'Tell them not
to kill me, Justino!' — and the urgency of the narration continues on every
page. The actual story is fairly simple: One man kills another over a land
dispute; the killer goes into hiding and is caught nearly four decades later.
The complexity of the story is the result of how the details and turning
points of the story slowly unfold.
By propelling the reader into the middle of the action in the first sentence, Rulfo
immediately piques our interest. Discuss as a class your students' reactions to the
opening sentences of the story. Who is trying to kill this man? Why? What did
he do? Does the way Rulfo began the story garner sympathy for the protagonist?
Why or why not?
We soon find out through flashback that Juvencio is not innocent. Ask students if
they felt conflicted about their support of Juvencio. Did the tension in the story
increase when they learned that he had murdered Don Lupe?
Have students map out a timeline of the story's main events. Which are told
in the present and which are revealed through flashbacks? How does the way
the reader finds out new information affect how he or she feels about the
"Tell Them Not to Kill Me!" slowly reveals itself through flashbacks. Have
students write in their reader's journal about the twists in the story's plot. Did
their allegiance shift between the characters? If so, at what point did this change
take place? Did they anticipate any of the plot twists? Which revelation had the
most impact? Why?
Read "My Life with the Wave" by Octavio Paz. Identify several examples for each
of the following questions: Which specific moments in the story are bizarre or
dreamlike? Which moments seem more conventional?
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My Life with the Wave" by Octavio Paz
Surrealism is a movement in art and writing, begun by the French poet
Andre Breton in 1924 with the publication of his manifesto LeManifeste
du Surrealisme. It stated that a deeper reality exists, which to mortal minds
is unfathomable. To mirror that profound reality, surrealist artists are fond
of bizarre and dreamlike imagery. Drawing on the theories of Sigmund
Freud, surrealists seek to create their art according to the dictates of the
Surrealism flourished between World Wars I and II. Such artists as Pablo
Picasso (1881-1973), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Rene Magritte (1898-
1967), and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) painted surrealist works at different
points in their careers. Reading Octavio Paz's "My Life with the Wave as
a Surrealist prose poem is only one of several possible interpretations of this
fascinating short story. First published in 1976, it can be read as an erotic
allegory, an exploration of the artists relationship with his muse, a short
story exploring magical realism, or in ways yet undiscovered.
The following statement summarizes Andre Breton's surrealist ambition:
"I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory
states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality. so to
speak. I am looking forward to its consummation, certain that I shall never
share in it, but death would matter little to me could I but taste the joy it will
yield ultimately." How might this surrealist claim apply to Octavio Paz's story
"My Life with the Wave"?
Although "My Life with the Wave" is a fantastical story which elements of the
plot resemble other, more traditional stories students have read? In particular,
how does the story seem like a conventional love affair? Ask students to identify
specific moments in the story where the language evokes a typical romance
between two people. Can the story still be considered Surrealist?
In his Nobel lecture Octavio Paz said. "We pursue modernity in her incessant
metamorphoses yet we never manage to trap her. She always escapes: each
encounter ends in flight. We embrace her and she disappears immediately: it was
just a little air." In their journals, have students write two paragraphs considering
how this quotation might provide clues to interpreting the story
Reread "My Life with the Wave." then read Handout Three in this guide. Ask
students to write two paragraphs explaining the reasons why they agree or
disagree with Thiel's interpretation
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My Life with the Wave" by Octavio Paz
Writers use figurative language to help the reader visualize and experience
events and emotions. Imagery, a word or series of words that refers to
any sensory experience (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste), helps create
a visceral experience for the reader. Some figurative language asks us to
stretch our imaginations, finding the likeness in seemingly unrelated things.
A simile is a comparison between two things that initially seem quite
different but are shown to have a significant resemblance. Similes employ
a connective, usually "like," "as," or "than," or a verb such as "resembles."
A metaphor states that one thing is something else in order to extend and
expand the meaning of one of those objects. By asserting that a thing is
something else, metaphors create a close association that underscores some
Personification is a figure of speech in which a thing, an animal, or an
abstract term (truth, death, the past, etc.) takes on human qualities.
Understanding this story depends on paying attention to both the literal
and figurative elements that Paz evokes.
What specific images does Paz use to describe the presence of the wave in the
narrator's life at the beginning, and how do these images change by the story's
end? How do the later, darker images contrast with the literal descriptions of
clothing, trains, police officers, a jail cell, and an ice bucket?
Identify specific moments where the wave is described with human qualities. How
do these moments of personification — along with the bizarre physical details of
her elemental nature — give "My Life with the Wave" a surreal quality?
As a class, list three possible interpretations of the story's last two paragraphs.
Why might the narrator say that the wave "was an implacable whip that lashed
and lashed"? Ask several students to read their homework assignment aloud. Do
they agree or disagree with Diane Thiel's point of view expressed in Handout
In their reader's journals, ask students to list several places in "My Life with the
Wave" where words can refer (whether directly or simply by suggestion) to both
a woman and a wave. In two paragraphs, describe how a full appreciation of the
story depends on noticing its literal and figurative qualities.
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Have students read "Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes. Ask them to pay special
attention to its unusual form, consisting of a diary nested inside another
character's first-person narration.
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"Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes
The word "epistolary" comes from the Latin word for letter, epistola.
"Epistolary" writing is told by way of documents written by one or more
characters. These can take the form of letters, as in Mary Shelley s novel,
Frankenstein; of diary entries, or a combination of documents, as in Bram
Stokers novel Dracula. Fiction writers usually use the epistolary form to add
authenticity to a story, a sense that the author or narrator has discovered
these documents and is sharing them with the reader.
Carlos Fuentes chose to structure this story as a diary nested inside another
character's first-person narration. Discuss the structure of "Chac-Mool" using
the homework assignment from the previous class. Why might Fuentes have
decided to tell the story through the filter of a narrator reading his friend
Filiberto's diary entries? How might the ending have had to change if Fuentes had
just given us Filiberto's diaries?
The narrator's account isn't just a framing device. He interrupts Filiberto's diary
twice. In the first of these interruptions he writes, "The entry for August 25
seemed to have been written by a different person. At times it was the writing
of a child, each letter laboriously separated; other times, nervous, trailing into
illegibility." How does a reader's awareness not just of Filiberto's medium — in
this case, "a cheap notebook with graph-paper pages and marble-ized-paper
binding" — but also his erratic penmanship, condition how we interpret his story?
Finally, consider that two of the greatest horror stories. Frankenstein and Dracula.
and "Chac-Mool" are all written in epistolary form. What is it about the
epistolary form that might lend itself to the creation of unease, or suspense,
J^ Writing Exercise
Ask students to write a short story in their reader's journal using the epistolary
form. Encourage them to be creative. They may use letters, diary entries, e-mails,
or even blog posts.
Have students page back through "Chac-Mool" to find examples of symbolic
objects. How is the symbolic meaning different from the literal significance of
the object? How does each symbol inform our understanding of the story or
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"Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes
Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently,
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in
the story's title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a story is
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can
reveal new interpretations of the story.
Beyond its delights as a spooky story, what might "Chac-Mool" mean? As
the story begins, Filiberto has just drowned trying to swim away from his
hotel. The narrator arrives to pick up his friend s body and finds Filiberto s
notebook in a satchel. The diary entries describe Filiberto's doomed last
days with his Chac-Mool statue.
Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises
Show your students photographs of a Chac-Mool. Discuss what symbolic value
this primitive stone figure has in the story. Ask your students why they think the
Chac-Mool starts out in the cellar, and why Filiberto winds up there. We last see
the Chac-Mool as a "yellow-skinned Indian in a smoking jacket and ascot" (p. 46).
How has the Chac-Mool changed over the course of the story? Who changes
more, him or Filiberto? By the end, are they both ruined?
Ask your students to write a two-page essay on what water might symbolize in
"Chac-Mool." Does its symbolic value change or evolve over the course of the
story? Of all the ways for Filiberto to die, why do you think Fuentes opted for
drowning? Have your students support their ideas with passages from the text.
Have your students begin to write their essays, using the topics at the end of this
guide or subjects that emerge as students look through their reader's journals.
Outlines are due at the next class.
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Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the
larger context of the human struggle. The writers voice, style, and use of
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities
to learn and reflect, a great story is a work of art that affects many
generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and breaks
a Short Story
Ask students the following questions: If you were the voice of your generation,
what would be your most important message? Why might you choose to convey
this in a short story rather than a novel, poem, speech, or essay? What story
would you tell to get your point across?
Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist with outlines,
drafts, and arguments. Have them partner with another student to edit outlines
and rough drafts. For this editing, provide students with a list of things they
should look for in a well-written essay.
Students should finish writing their essays to hand in during the next class.
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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the story. This statement or
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting
reasons should be backed by references to the text.
1. Marriage threatens the identity of the female 4.
narrator of "Cooking Lesson" by Rosario
Castellanos. Expand the plot summary and the
character analysis from your reader's journal
to explore the ways the piece of steak serves
as a symbol for the narrator's life. How do the
changes that take place as the meat cooks help
us understand the narrator's emotional state?
Why might Castellanos have chosen meat as a
2. Analyze one of the stories in the collection
and draft one sentence that summarizes its
primary theme. Using quotations from the
text, write an essay that supports your claim.
Be sure to consider the title of the story, point
of view, main characters, setting, and objects of
symbolic value while writing your essay.
3. Magical realism blends elements of the real 6.
world with imaginative surrealistic descriptions
and events. Many Latin American writers are
considered masters of the form. Expand the
entries in your reader's journal to consider
the ways Octavio Paz brings elements of
magical realism to the page in "My Life with
the Wave." How does the incorporation of
fantastical characters and events add to the
effect of the story? How does our world differ
when studied through the lens of possibility
provided by magical realism?
Writing about setting invites you to study
not only the story's time and place, but also
the ways that a particular setting affects each
of the characters. Choose a story in the
anthology and write an essay considering the
following questions: When and where does
the story take place? Does the location suggest
anything about the characters' lives? Is weather
an important aspect of the story? If so, how?
Take two stories in which you find similarities
and evaluate the strengths of each, providing
evidence from the texts to support your
judgments. This could include character studies
of the stories' protagonists, comparison of the
settings, contrasting different authors' styles of
writing, or a focus on the ways a similar topic
or theme is addressed.
Choose a story you did not enjoy reading
and write a critical review. Be sure to offer
thoughtful reasoning for your criticisms and
support your arguments with passages from
14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly,
or a bookstore.
1. Photo Gallery: Divide students into five
groups. Assign each group one of the following
a. Ancient Mexico
b. The Mexican countryside, including crops
c. Modern Mexican cities
d. Twentieth-century political leaders
e. Cathedrals and churches
Ask each group to find and print photographs
relating to its assigned topic and write captions
for each. Assemble the photographs into an
exhibit that can be shown at a school assembly
or in conjunction with a Big Read event in your
2. Performance: Work with your school's
drama instructor to produce a reader's theater
or stage version of one or more of the short
stories in the anthology. Students who do not
feel comfortable acting can work on lighting,
set creation, or costume design.
3. Artist's Gallery: Ask students to draw or
paint a scene from one of the short stories
in the anthology Display the artwork in your
school's hallway or at a local Big Read event,
or create an exhibit on Surrealist Mexican
art. Ask students to research the artists and
their creations, including biographical, cultural,
and historical facts that add to a complete
understanding of the work. Display the exhibit
in a school library, auditorium, or at a popul.ir
venue in your community.
Read-a-thon: Read several stories from the
anthology aloud at a local coffee shop or local
hangout. Team with a culinary arts program at
a local high school or college to provide typical
Mexican sweets for patrons to enjoy with their
Adaptation: Divide the class into groups. Ask
students to adapt their favorite stories from
Sun, Stone, and Shadows using your town or city
as a setting. They should write all the dialogue
and take the parts of all the characters. Ask
each group to perform for the entire class or
at a student assembly. Afterward, discuss the
shift in setting. How did it change the story ;
What are some of the social issues Mexico and
the United States share?
Cultural Appreciation: Teaming with a
world history, current affairs, or social studies
class, plan a day to explore Mexican culture.
Play Mexican music, show a Mexican film,
enjoy Mexican food, and talk about recent
news events that have special relevance to the
people of Mexico.
National Endowment for the \i t-> the big reap • |5
Modern literary fiction has been dominated by
two forms: the novel and the short story. "Fiction"
(from the Latin fictio, "a shaping, a counterfeiting")
is a name for writing that is at least partially
imagined. In historical fiction, a writer draws
on factual information to present scenes, events,
and characters, but the facts are of secondary
importance. Readers should expect a novel or story
to create a sense of how people respond to life's
circumstances rather than an authentic chronicle of
Ancient forms of the short story date back to the
days of oral storytelling. Most of us are familiar
with Aesop's fables and the parables of Jesus
from the New Testament. These brief narratives
teach a moral lesson. Usually short enough to be
memorized, they tend to be less complicated and
closely detailed than a story written for the printed
page. Fairy tales such as "Jack and the Beanstalk"
and tall tales like those about Paul Bunyan and
Pecos Bill are set in world of magical possibility
where supernatural and fantastic occurrences are
commonplace. Fairy and tall tales tend to be more
elaborately constructed than fables and parables
but they thrive on action rather than on character
The written short story emerged in the early
nineteenth century and was the last major literary
form to develop. The short story did at least three
things that changed the way brief fiction was told.
First, it condensed the action of the tale — usually
into a single situation focused on a single character.
All of the dramatic and narrative power of the
story was compressed into exploring that one
action — its motivations, unfolding, and effects.
The second hallmark of modern short fiction is
fully delineated character. Characters are usually
imagined people who populate a story. Some works
of fiction have characters that are not human, such
as in "My Life with the Wave" by Octavio Paz,
but even these characters are imbued with human
Finally, the short story used prose in a poetic
manner. Sound and rhythm, image and symbol,
tone and point of view were carefully crafted to
communicate the plot as well as the physical and
emotional experience of the story. Edgar Allan Poe,
who helped develop the short story, thought of the
form as an essentially poetic kind of prose narrative
that created a trancelike state of heightened feeling,
thought, and sensitivity.
The plot of a short story is the element most
readers most remember. Plot is a pattern of actions,
events, and situations an author uses to tell a story.
Through plot, writers create a series of emotional
responses in the reader: suspense, humor, sadness,
excitement, even terror. A successful short story
combines plot with strong characters and poetic
language to challenge, delight and enchant its
Excerpted from The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction by
Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn, eds.
16 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Reader- Response Criticism
Literary criticism is not an abstract, intellectual
exercise; it is a natural human response to
literature. Literary criticism is nothing more than
discourse — spoken or written — about literature.
Reader-response criticism attempts to describe what
happens in the readers mind while interpreting
a work of fiction. This type of literary criticism
recognizes that like writing, reading is a creative
process. Reader-response critics believe that no text
provides self-contained meaning; literary texts do
not have meaning independently from readers'
interpretations. According to this school, a text is
not complete until it is read and interpreted.
The easiest way to explain reader-response criticism
is to relate it to the common experience of
re-reading a favorite book after many years. A book
one read as a child might seem shockingly different
when re-read as an adolescent or as an adult. The
character once remembered favorably might seem
less admirable while another character becomes
more sympathetic. The book has not changed.
\ lowever, our life experiences between the first
reading and any subsequent re-reading can affect
the way we respond to a story.
Reader-response criticism explores how different
individuals see the same text differently. It
emphasizes how religious, cultural, and social
values affect the way we read and respond to a
work of fiction. Of course, no two individuals will
necessarily read a text in exactly the same way nor
will they agree on its meaning. Rather than declare
one interpretation correct and the other mistaken,
reader-response criticism recognizes that different
insights are inevitable. Instead of trying to ignore
or reconcile the contradictions, it explores them.
Reader-response criticism also overlaps with gender
criticism in exploring how men and women read
the same text with different assumptions.
While reader-response criticism rejects the notion
that there can be a single correct reading for
a literary text, it doesn't consider all readings
permissible. Each text creates limits to its possible
interpretations. We cannot suddenly change the
setting, the way a story's plot unfolds, or redefine
Keeping a reader's journal is a great way to keep
track of the fiction you read and your emotional
responses to the stories. Vm can use the journal to
explore ideas for cssavs. note important quotations,
and list words to look up in the dictionary. I
your readers journal while studying Sun, Stone,
and Shadows to provide a convenient way of
documenting your ov« n response to the stones you
read in the anthology.
I nceip t cd from 1 he Longm
n.ui.i ( tioi.i .mil R s Gwynn, eos.
National 1 ndowment tot tin
THE BIG READ • 17
Paz's "My Life with the Wave"
An Allegory of the Creative Process, by Diane Thiel
Octavio Paz's "My Life with the Wave" has
a many-layered nature which eludes immediate
definition. Is it a love relationship that the
wave describes, or is it an aspect of himself?
Is it memory? Or is it the muse, inspiration —
which follows him from the sea, causes him
imprisonment, and then is waiting for him
on his return home, ready to toss him in
The wave is vested with human qualities, and the
speaker has a relationship with her that is both
physical and emotional. A superficial reading
might lead to the conclusion that the wave is
merely a representation of a love relationship.
The sensuous nature of the wave and the erotic
and tempestuous relationship of the speaker with
her support this impression. A closer reading,
however, reveals some inconsistencies. The wave
presents some non-human qualities. Her tempests,
like those of the sea, are tied to the weather. She
lacks the human center of mortality, and the
vulnerability which comes from it.
The origin of this piece — its inclusion in Aguila
o sol (Eagle or Sun), a collection of prose poems
which deals with the creative process — offers a
useful clue to the deeper possible meanings of
the wave. The pieces in Aguila o sol describe the
artistic process as a physical, erotic encounter,
sometimes violent. Paz's choice of a wave to depict
the experience is an evocative one. As a writer, he
struggles with the volatile demands of the Muse.
It is a relationship which strikes a familiar chord
with all writers. The wave will follow you home.
You have no choice in the matter. It will come in
search of you. You will do anything for this wave.
Going to prison will not keep you from writing.
But it is a tempestuous relationship — tortuous
at times, because you may not know what the
The double metaphor — the creative process as
a wave, and the wave as a person — is effective
because it can describe the relationship with the
Muse simultaneously on intellectual, emotional,
and visceral levels. The erotic connotations are
particularly effective because they heighten the
intensity of the piece. Paz chose a feminine noun
(la old) for his character, which requires the
feminine pronoun in Spanish. The effect in the
original language is somewhat subtler than the
use of "she" in English. The translation strongly
encourages one to initially read the piece as a
description of a love relationship.
The final image of the wave, broken up to fill ice
buckets, may be chilling, but it is also a clue to her
identity. The ideas generated by the creative process
become tortuous at times. One may have to leave a
project for a while, in order to allow the inspiration
to solidify into words. For the writer, inspiration
can be a monster with which one must battle,
until it is broken up into pieces — words, poems,
stories. The fact that the speaker "sells" the wave
further suggests her nature as Muse. Is the waiter
the editor, who uses small shards of the product of
inspiration to enrich the lives of readers, like chilled
wine? It is an unfortunate fate — the wave of
inspiration reduced to restaurant ice. One cannot
truly capture the wave, Paz seems to suggest, only
serve it in the tiniest of pieces.
Used with permission of the author. Originally published in
Fiction, edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.
18 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Castellanos, Rosario. A Rosario Castellanos Reader. An
Anthology of Her Poetry, Short Fiction, Essays, and Drama.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
Fuentes, Carlos. Myself with Others. New York: Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, 1988.
Paz, Octavio, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in
Mexico. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
Rulfo, Juan. Juan Rulfo's Mexico. Washington: Smithsonian,
This Web site contains information about the culture and
history of Mexico.
www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/ 1 990
The Nobel Foundation Web site contains information
about Octavio Paz, an overview of his work, a complete
bibliography, and the text of his Nobel lecture and
The Academy of American Poets contains a biography.
bibliography, and link to information related to Octavio
The Web site of The American Academy of Achievement
serves to spark the imagination of students across
America and around the globe by bringing them into
direct personal contact with the greatest thinkers and
achievers of the age. The site contains an interview with
Carlos Fuentes conducted in June 2006.
This site contains information on the Surrealist movement
that was founded in 1924 by Andre Breton It also
contains biographical information on Surrealists such as
Salvador Dali. Rene Magntte. and Max Ernst
National 1 tulowmont tor the \m^
THE BIG REAL * 19
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards"
Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g.,
sound-letter correspondence, sentence
structure, context, graphics).
Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit
their purpose and audience.
Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literary communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and
develop your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
"At home, my father made me read Mexican
history, study Mexican geography, and understand
the names, the dreams and defeats of Mexico .
a land of Oz with a green cactus road, a landscape
and a soul so different from those of the United
States that they seemed a fantasy."
from Myself with Others: Selected Essays
Top left, clockwise: Rosario
Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz.
"The temples and gods of pre-Columbian
Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that
breathed life into that world has not disappeared;
it speaks to us in the hermetic language of myth,
legend, forms of social coexistence, popular art,
customs. Being a Mexican writer means listening
to the voice of that present, that presence."
— OCTAVIO PAZ
from his 1990 Nobel Prize acceptance lecture
From today on, 111 be
whatever I choose to
be at the moment... "
— ROSARIO CASTELLANOS
from her short story "Cooking Lesson"
N AT I O N A L
FOR THE ARTS
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
'«• -JNllllUltM ..
A great nation deserves great art